Emily Kochanek – News Editor
On October 8, Lasell honored political and media expert Thomas Patterson of Harvard as this year’s Distinguished Donahue Scholar lecture. Patterson teaches at the Kennedy School of Govern- ment at Harvard and specializes in American politics, media, and research design.
Throughout his career, Patterson has authored many books including “The Unseeing Eye” that was praised as one of the best public opinion books by the American Association for Public Opinion Research. His newest book, “Informing the News,” prompted his speech to students and faculty filling deWitt auditorium.
His talk, “Corruption of Information: Why We’re Getting Dumber, and What Can Be Done About It,” recounted the disintegration of hard news media and how it has affected the public.
“Citizen participation has always been one of the hallmarks of this country,” Patterson began. “We don’t score very well when it comes to voter turnout… But when it comes to civic and political participation, we’re second to none. It’s an enormously important tradition.”
But, with a tradition fading, Patterson said even with advances in technology and education the American public is “getting dumber.” Misinformation is the reason. With new emerging media systems throughout the last quarter of the 20th century misinformation became a problem.
Relaying history, Patterson said traditional broadcast television competing with newly available cable television in the 1970’s was the beginning of the degradation of hard news and the rise of misinformation. Transitioning from a “low choice media environment,” said Patterson, to an environment with hundreds of television choices, created a need for broadcasters to bring in more viewers.
Thus, the quality of news declined, said Pat- terson. With NBC, CBS, and ABC competing with entertainment television, their news formats turned to “soft news” and a study conducted over the past 20 years showed entertainment news increased it’s airtime by 20-30 percent.
Patterson also said time consuming news has decreased. “At one time, news was consumed by appointment,” said Patterson. “What I mean by appointment was you usually reserved part of the day aside for the news. If you wanted to watch the television newscast, you had to be in front of the television set at the right hour of the day… Today we get our news on demand.”
Patterson agreed technology enabling instant access to news was good, however it made news consumption more susceptible to disruption as well as less time to “put the pieces together.”
“If you’re in a really rich media environment like we are today with messages coming at you 24 hours from every direction, it actually stunts your attention span,” said Patterson. According to research, the American public’s attention span has decreased to half of what it was in the 1990’s.
The answer to misinformation, Patterson concluded, is to educate journalists on areas outside of journalism. “Too often, [a] source knows more than the journalist does,” said Patterson. “That really makes them vulnerable to their sources. When they’re being spun they don’t always know they’re being spun.” A journalist must be able to test the validity of his or her source, said Patterson.